Tiny Useful Things: Welcome booklet

Around 2011, I published a few quick projects called ‘Tiny Useful Things’ and on this unseasonally warm Friday night I wanted to add to that list.

This is prompted by travelling a lot and staying in many Airbnbs. It’s also prompted because I like having people over. I am lucky enough to have a spare guest room and I have friends come over all the time.

I was thinking about the experience of hosting and how strangely structured the whole thing is. I’m staying in someone’s home and they may or may not be there to greet me. I have to figure out the quirks of the place on my own most of the time and I will probably have to use Google maps to figure out what exactly is around me. I think this is something that can be made more quickly accessible and generated based on a few pieces of information that can really help someone quickly get their bearings. It’s also something that doesn’t necessarily have to be online. It could be a sort of pocketbook you could take with you in case you’re in trouble. It could also be something that could help you navigate the city and the language.

So using the excellent bookleteer template, I came up with a ‘Welcome’ booklet that I think services like Airbnb should help their hosts generate and anyone should be able to make quickly. This took me an hour.

It includes:

– A cover page with the address
– A first page with contact details and emergency contact details. This may include a neighbour and the local emergency service number.
– A couple of pictures and notes on house quirks.
– Wifi details.
– A map of the surrounding area with food, transportation and other links.
– A lost of apps the person may want to download that will make their stay more pleasurable or the city easier to navigate.

That’s it. All this booklet is trying to do is help the transaction between the guest and the host. Every house is different and none of them are perfect. And every host knows their area but aren’t necessarily there to make people feel welcome. Isn’t about time we made that a feature rather than a bug?

Happy Friday!

Photos also on instagram.

Digital (&/or) Health

(Jotting down quick thoughts as I finish a day of a workshop on digital health at Wintec where I’ve spent the week as part of a 2 week speaking tour of New Zealand. )

  • So many challenges in the healthcare sector have nothing whatsoever to do with tech. This is a challenge for anyone selling ‘smart health’ solutions. Policy, process and community issues were gnarly issues that don’t have technology solutions attached to them.
  • The US’s engagement with digital platforms is looked at as a model which I find frightening. Most Americans are absolutely shaped in their daily life and career choices by their ability to have access to healthcare. This means they are much more likely to be glued to their digital healthcare records than in any other country.
  • Patient versus patient(s). It’s difficult to think of patient-centric care when you don’t provide care to one person at a time as part of a service. The model is both the challenges of a factory (people, access to the right tools & resources & managing that access) but also a community (how to you manage staff energy, teamwork, patient trust). They are two competing models.
  • (Related) Who really is the user? The doctors? The nursing & support staff? The patient? Everyone’s needs matters here. But their needs are all really different and competing.

Unless we can address some of these I don’t think we’ll find the right tech tools.

The £150K problem: how to properly fund #iot startups

I was invited to speak at Fund Forum in Berlin a few weeks ago and wanted to share the crux of my argument to a room full of investors and investment managers.

I believe that fundamentally, the investment model that Silicon Valley has developed around software is completely useless when it comes to helping early stage hardware startups get off the ground.

Traditionally, as a founder, you might look to raise £50K in seed, friends or family or angel money. That’s great except that will never get you a physical connected product to test out on the market. Never. Not with the materials you need to use, not with the embedded software that needs to be developed. Never.

Spending 3-4 months in an incubator gives you a break from your daily obligations of paying the rent but doesn’t cover the cost of expert engineering, industrial design, moulds, certification.

Some investment funds are starting to concentrate on #iot and that’s great, but good god I wish people would START by investing £150K. And then leave companies be for a while, because £150K is enough to get going or hang yourself with if you don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s not enough to make your investors cry either (as a fund manager).

£150K will cover the certification costs for EU/US sales, the design work with a team or a partner, some marketing. That’s kindof all a team needs to ‘test’ the product with people, to have something in their hands. And it’s possibly enough to start to just sell the damn thing. Later the founders can go after VC money if they’re keen (or mad) but for the love of God(s) let’s give startups a chance. Anything below £150K and they are just bidding their time, missing one Christmas after the other, missing opportunities for that ‘growth’ which all investors look for.

Help them out first, in a serious and productive way. £150K/startup. That would be great.

The why of the internet of things

(Writeup of a talk given at the IOT Summit in Dublin on June 22nd 2017 instead of slides)

Good morning,

Thank you for inviting me to share my perspectives on the internet of things.

I wanted to talk about the why of the internet of things. As an industrial designer, I’ve always been fascinated with the limits of the physical world and how the internet might extend them. Naively when I got started 13 years ago, I thought that the challenges we might face related to issues of semantics and transparency of use. If a chair was connected, how would we be able to tell, as a consumer that it was connected? When the act of using different things is different every time and the context for using them is different every time, how can we think of creating a mesh of use that makes sense to anyone else. I can eat with a spoon but I can also measure medicine to feed it to my child or use it to open a difficult piece of packaging. Products are also laden with cultural meaning and social and collective meaning. When we decide to connect them we decide to play with that meaning, with the expectations that were built in because of it’s original use and the culture surrounding it.

To work in the internet of things now is no longer a quest for better technological advancement but an academic, political and economic act to overhaul, refine, and play with the last 150 years of industrial development and decline.

It’s no longer enough to have sold something to someone now, we must know who they are, how often they use it and what they do with it. We believe that this is how we will make better decisions.

Except we don’t make those decisions. Just as we are unwilling to disclose how many ‘active’ users a site has versus ‘passive’ or spam bots, we are also unwilling to talk in real terms about the longevity of people’s relationships with the physical world. We are also unwilling to recognise that technology needs politics but not necessarily the other way around.

Most wearable devices will stay in a drawer after 6 months, most activity tracking will be inaccurate, all connectivity will be patchy at some point, most connected powertools will still only be used for 8 minutes in their whole lives, most diesel cars will need to be taken off the roads to reduce pollution, most packaging will need to be decreased, most e-waste managed by the manufacturers, most people will need to use less energy in their homes and will will all of us need to eat more vegetables and less meat.

Some problems we already know the solutions to and I sometimes feel that we use the excuse of ‘data’ to delay the inevitable political decision-making.

We’ve also trained our investment community to be addicted to 7 year cycles of investments which are frankly tailored to software companies. Most startups in #iot will face what I like to call the £150K problem. Receiving anything less will be a waste of time, and anything more and they’ll be forced to grow too quickly to really understand their product and their customers.

I’ve been running the internet of things meetup in London for 6 years now and I see good, meaningful startups that will help solve good meaningful problems die on the vine or hobble , underfunded.

Startups like Flood Network which builds sensors for bridges so you can tell the height of the water in a river and you can track flooding near your home in real time. Flooding is one of those areas where government is lazy and takes a ‘last minute, politically glorious’ approach. Building good lasting flood defenses always seems less important than looking good in wellies on television. (See Katrina for a similar although less successful scenario of politics first, people later.) So noone does anything and noone wants to invest in the opportunity to help homeowners help themselves and respond way in advance of an actual flood to protect their household goods.

I won’t even talk of Grenfell in London 2 weeks ago and what a ‘smart building’ could have done in that environment, the capital intense process of smart building management is simply too expensive for most social housing. With data and with connected things, there will be the haves and the have nots. This is a deeply political issue we cannot ignore.
We have dragged over business models that work in software into a world of capital intensive hardware-based experiences and think it’s the same. There are problems with this of course, data security, keeping people safe, making people trust a complex set of systems they have no way of understanding. We are far away from everyone knowing how to code and we have past the point where things are repairable, so we have to build trust but we also have to do the right thing.

Last week in London, I co-organised an event to build an internet of things certification mark. We need, as a community of practitioners, to think about how to build things people will want to buy and not be scared of using. We cannot hide behind the idea of selling data off without any respect for the consumers who are paying in the first place or any care for how we build a connected product they might rely on in their daily lives. GDPR (you have a session on this this afternoon) has very tangible impacts on how we build these products and 2 days ago in London I invited a technology law firm to talk to people about this at the meetup. The certification mark goes even further than this and I’d love your thoughts on this (iotmark.org) today if you’d like to speak to me about it.

So how can Dublin and other cities around Ireland respond to this landscape? Build up an environment for small but meaningful applications and startups to grow in. I’m not sure what has happened to your lovely local community but there hasn’t been a meetup in 2 years. You probably need to help them out there with a space and some support. Again think of how you might give startups £150K to get going. Encourage startups that don’t concentrate on people’s personal data, GDPR will really affect that model. Instead think of all the other things you could be monitoring and helping consumers make good decisions around: the weather, farming, infrastructure, city services. The future of the internet of things is in the words of E.F. Shumacher in ‘small and peaceful technology’. I would add ‘useful and transparent’ too.

Designers of what, when and why?

I’m taking part in this one day event hosted by Domus Academy and they asked me to think about these questions for a video they are filming. I thought I’d document my (longer) responses here.

1. Concerning the what of design. Sixty-five years ago, Ernesto Rogers said that the role of design extended “from the spoon to the city”. What should be the focus of tomorrow’s designer?

I think we have a consciously-constructed view of what design is and what a designer’s role is. We have built ourselves blinkers away from the new forms of human action and invention. Architecture, urban design, product design have always had a belated interest in technological progress. We like to think of ourselves as pioneers, but the pioneers are the marketers, sociologists and engineers that come before there is anything to design. They are the ones to construct the monetary framework for work to take place. Design comes after when someone else has made the capital investment, someone else has taken the risk, someone has failed. Christine Frederick, a home economist, and the wife of a business data publisher, took Frederick Taylor’s engineering work in automotive factories to propose a framework for a more effecient home design and how planned obsolescence was necessary for economic growth. Right there, you could say that all of product design’s current concerns, worries and general society’s sustainable woes were built on this woman’s work. Not a designer. An architect in Germany read her book when it was translated in German several years later and made it real. And the rest is history.

I think we have to get design out of this box of ‘response’. I think we ought to be in the ‘discovery’ and ‘testing’ phase a lot more than we are. We wait, we’re complacent in the global economic systems that destroy nature, we wait for a client, we wait for a need to be badly adressed by someone else. We wait.

We can’t wait anymore, we are needed, we need to collaborate with scientists, ecologists, economists. We need to run businesses, we need to get involved in the whole process of bringing a design to life and to sometimes be involved in the process of killing it.

We need to work with programmers, UX designers, people with skillsets we don’t undersand, because it makes us better at being what we should have been all along: the champion for better decision-making, not just a better looking decision.

2. Concerning the where of design: what should be local, and what should be global?

That’s an important political question. E.F. Shumacher, the philosopher and economist, wrote that making simple, non-violent machines was the way to local economic growth. A baker is such an example. Baking doesn’t scale well, and it provides high quality produce for a local economy.

We have to learn to scale down design, making plastics, metals, electronics components locally if we want to build in economic growth in rural areas.

Small, quiet, non-war driven industry. That’s all hard. High-end affordable, service-based contracts have made consumers expect design to be cheap. To be successful is to sell, to sell world-wide, with free shipping. It makes it impossible to make locally this way, because the pressure is on everyone to be able to afford it.

We have to respond to this and also to the appetite we create. We create appetite for things on the other side of the planet, so even if they are made locally, they are wanted somewhere else.

Last year, I went to Japan and found this really lovely tray in a small village in the Japan Alps. My friend found the same tray in Paris last week. We have accepted that this is success. We may need to change our minds about that but find ways to talk about this without sounding anti-commerce and anti-growth because this is what design drives. Growth and success.

3. Concerning the when of design: should designers focus on the creation of future utopias? Or should designers pay more attention to qualities of the past – and the present?

Designers I think could do with less future gazing and more present fixing. We still have poverty, hunger, air pollution, unemployment in the world. These are all challenges that design should accept and embrace. Designers should be working with UNESCO, Amnesty, the WTO. Design needs to be part of an economic and political conversation that is happening now.

4. Concerning the why of design: many people say that designers need to develop empathy with people in order to understand their needs. Or is empathy a brake on creativity? and what about empathy for the biosphere?

There’s been much written about when empathy means control in the design act. I like the idea of looking at compassion instead. Walking in someone’s shoes is something that should be done more often, but also shouldn’t be limited to the ‘consumer’. Designers should be interested in everyone involved in their practice, their colleagues, their suppliers, their sub-contractors. Everyone benefits or suffers from an act of design in a global economy.

5. If you were to start a Domus Academy masters today, what would be its subject?

I’d love to start a masters in Design, economics and philosophy. I don’t think these fields interact enough and I think technology is presenting us with so many problems (security of employment, social cohesion in the gig economy, UBI, etc) that a broader and more economically-engaged conversation about design is needed. There’s a reason most politicians haven’t studied design but have studied economics, law, history or philosophy. If design wants to become a real agent of change, it needs to get political in an active way and that starts with education.

What a 15 year old girl taught me about tech.

Last year I decided to work with so called ‘young people’. At 36, I realised most of my peers and collaborators were in their late twenties or my age and although many friends were much much older, not many of them were much much younger. So I went to work, taking on 20 something year old Katya as an intern and mentored 19 year old Jolane for a few months. Then last December, my friend who is a teacher at the secondary in front of my house asked me if I knew anyone who could offer a work placement for a talented 15 year old named Lian. She was simultaneously much younger than anyone I had interacted and much older than my nieces. What’s more, I can still remember being 15. So I offered to take her on for a week but instead of getting her to help me with the Good Night Lamp, I thought I’d help her to project herself in the future.

I organised a week of morning study periods, introducing her to graphic design principles, 3D drawing through Tinkercad, presentation skills and blogging. In the afternoons we went to visit friends of mine who works across technology and creativity: Alice Bartlett,Claire Selby, Ling Tan, Becky Stewart, Avril O’Neal and Nat Buckley. This turned out to be really exhausting for her, but she seemed to enjoy herself. By the end of the week she was confident enough to ask questions we hadn’t rehearsed and was taking notes on her own without my prompting. But really I learnt a lot more from this experience than I think she might imagine.

Human experience trumps theory
What made the time we spent with our hosts fantastic was to hear about what led them to where they are now. They spoke about learning, sometimes by accident, about computing. Sometimes they talked about what made them give it up for a while before returning to it later on. They talked about their parents, their teachers, their partners, their experiences travelling, their university course, their first jobs. All this gave me, as their friend, such an amazing insight into their work experience I hadn’t gotten from being a peer. It also put some real humanity into ‘tech’ as a field of practice. Coding wasn’t simply an academic choice, it was one of many these professionals could and sometimes did develop if they wanted to but it wasn’t always necessary.

ICT, IT, Computing, Coding.
A point I had to make to my young friend during our week together is the difference between ICT and well everything else. It’s not really self-evident that these different terms relate to different aspects of the ‘technology’ space and are not interchangeable. This is a real problem as language is culture and if in academia you aren’t using the same words industry is, then young people think you’re talking about something completely different. And of course they might be put off on that basis.

Seeing is believing
We had a lot of fun going *to* our hosts and seeing their environments. Some worked in large businesses with security guards at the door, others had making facilities and co-working spaces, others had small studio spaces in Shoreditch. That variety really puts a face on what the work is like. What it’s like to live a life working in ‘tech’ and creativity. This is very hard to bring to the classroom environment. We also went to see the new Robots exhibition at the Science Museum which brings to life robotics research. She hadn’t been to the museum since she was little. Bringing 15 year olds to technical museums is as valid as bringing smaller kids and perhaps even the parents need to be reminded of this. Seeing is believing.

Having a voice
Finally to hear a professional talking about their work, their career their path is very empowering. It’s a personal story told in an intimate context of their work. It’s powerful and it’s profound. At least it was for me. It made me realise how strong we are and I could remember how guarded I was when I was younger. It made me very proud to know all these people, to call some of them friends even. I hope that meeting them opened up the desire in Lian to have a voice to, to learn to speak and share in such a powerful way. The tech sector needs it so.

All things, connected and considered.

(Talk given at a Telenor event in Oslo on January 10th 2017.)

I’ve just come back from CES in Las Vegas and I can tell you, what can be connected is definitely on its way to being connected.

Cities, homes, cars and much more. But the devil is in the details so I’ll be the devil’s advocate.

Who is paying?

Smart cities is an area where connecting everything sounds like a great idea. Hello Lamp Post is a great, playful example of what we should be able to expect from our city’s infrastructure. The problem is of course that there is almost no such thing as ‘public goods’. The bins are made by a private company (Big Belly  for eg.) and installed by another private company (Veolia). Your water is distributed by a private company, so is your energy. Connecting these various elements to make a citizen’s life easier isn’t actually easy. Cars are very disruptive to a city’s pollution levels but collecting parking fines is an important source of finance for cities. And if a city isn’t collecting much taxes it will avoid spending it on investments where the ROI isn’t important enough. Many connected services also need capital investments that cities can’t afford. To offer smart parking you’d need to strap a camera on every street light or more dramatically dig out the tarmac to put sensors in the ground. Sounds great but if this isn’t financed artificially (EU-funding or other) many cities would prefer pouring their money in waste management, policing and emergency services as they are where financial planning is more predictable. Moving away from the status quo comes at a price for the cities like Vegas that would benefit the most from connected services simply because the capital investment, to make a real difference, is too large. For additonal reading take a tour of the recent posts made by the biggest casino’s recently, they have gone into detail with their predictions of a smart Vegas.

Who is buying?

CES was full of connected pet trackers, fridges, ovens and other novel applications of connectivity. There is often a lag between the ability to technically execute a new product offering and when consumers buy into them. The microwave for eg. was patented in 1945  but it wasn’t until the 80s that it became a household item in 90% of American homes. The first mobile phone was developed in 1973 but until the 2000s most people didn’t own one for leisure. An early instance of a connected fridge delivery service was meant to be developed in 2001 by Tesco the british retail giant and Glue, a swedish company has just received funding to do the same last year. But it only works with Scandinavian locks. That’s the type of problems you get when you try to scale and that’s how long ideas can take to be developed and adopted. It’s also rare that entirely new categories are created.

Global vs local scales of development

The world isn’t flat. Even McDonalds makes its product differently for everyone. Nest worked in the US because there you can do whatever you want to your electric system. In the UK however, it’s illegal to play around with your electric setup so you need an approved installer. The scalability of connected solutions always sounds nice on paper but the reality of hardware is different. People’s habits and behaviours are also different around products. People honk in the west to indicate their frustrations but in India, you honk to let someone know you’re behind them. On some American roads speeding is expected and flashing your lights indicates to others there is a police car nearby. Imagine a smart car in these contexts, the same sensors would create a very different map of cities and driving behaviours if you are locally aware. They would not make any sense if you are looking at the data through a machine’s view only.

Connected? Really?

Seamless connectivity is a dream we hold on to for the development of many products. But the reality is our cities, countrysides, rural areas and even our homes make for very different connectivity environments. Recognising that multiple modes of communication are needed at any point is hard, it’s expensive. The chipset prices vary widely so product designers tend to pick one over others and pay the price at some stage. The idea of seamless connectivity is dangerous because it fouls consumers into thinking they should be getting it from the get go. We’re not that lucky and the quicker we can manage expectations or offer alternatives the better. It’s expensive as it means handling returns but it’s the right thing to do.

Data, whose data?

Speaking of the right thing to do, well the internet of things presents us with many opportunities to inform consumers about their data and what rights they have over it. So why don’t we? Most consumers have absolutely no idea what happens to the data they create when using a product. No idea as to when that data is being taken and where it ends up, or even what it is. This will present the industry with ethical and corporate social responsibility problems. I’ve proposed a labelling system which is far from perfect but whoever decides to implement this first will lead the industry in being transparent about the invisible strands between a consumer and the company they are invisible linked to.

Damn pesky people

At the end of the day there is also the dirty secret of connectivity which is that you know precisely when and where someone has stopped using your service or how ineffective it may be. And instead of admitting it, most companies stay mute. Wearables are a perfect example, as they are linked to an unhealthy habit of thinking, every January usually, that you’ll lose weight this year. Most people stop using them within a short period of time and it has very little effect in changing our habits it turns out. Instead of building return/reuse services or a deeper more tailored service, wearable companies take whatever data they can get and move on to the next consumer. What a lost opportunity to change people’s lives for the best.

Common good(s)

Finally if there is an aspect of society which connectivity and telcos like Telenor can help build and invest in well it’s to build solutions to problems no-one wants to address, the problems for which markets are terribly ill-equipped. The elderly care market, personal security devices, smart flood warning systems and others are niche applications that can change people’s lives. The ability to execute small pilot projects to prove to other partners the effectiveness of a solution is key. Only companies like Telenor have the capital to invest in these kinds of solutions, solutions where a little bit of connectivity will go a long way.

The end of design

I just came back from CES (thanks to Here for flying me over to see their work, I’ll write about that soon too) and wanted to write down some thoughts I’ve been having over the past few months which crystallised during this trip. I’ll be giving a talk tomorrow in Oslo at an event organised by Telenor which will touch some of what I’ll write about here too.

I’ve been thinking about product design. Technically I studied industrial design, graduated from a B.A.(Sc) Sp. in 2004. We were never introduced to programming, computer science principles, electronics design or prototyping and the internet was an image search tool for presentations. That was 2004 but I have met people who still constrain their product design career that way. The course I studied has basically not changed while over the past 12 years, product design has been taken away from ‘designers’ to become an extension of computing and the latest technology.

A product has become a physical manifestation of computing capability, with little concern given to the ‘user’ because it is now so cheap to produce something physically, that whether someone finds a product ‘useful’ or not hardly matters. It’s about what the ‘user’ can contribute to the computing power and the technology. The function is almost accidental. A physical product is no longer a tool to solve an actual problem. The design of the product is now simply a process of execution of a technological capability, not the core value. The physical product, just an accidental interface to a land of data to be mined. It is a physical access point to people’s behaviours, language skills and habits in their home, cars and at work.

A bit like Narcissus, looking into the mirror, we want our technical capabilities to mirror us. We are making the mirror.

Robots and assistants at CES were a great examples of design by technologists, of that mirror made physical. I worked for over 2 years for an EU-funded  social robotics project and the computing technology has hardly improved (mostly relying on great copywriters) but the access to design means that simple, clunky technology can be made to look final and believable enough for consumers. Some of the ‘robot companions’ you can find in the CES Robotics Marketplace included Abilix, Koova, Unibot, Furo-i Home, Loobot (don’t ask), Alpha 2, Laundroid (no product pics), Nannybot and i-RobiQ. All a little hopeless, there was also Kuri a gender-confused (copy uses both he and she but not it) home robot launched by Mayfield Robotics. The CTO’s interviewed talks about the technical ability to make robots cost effective, not the fact that there was a great need for them. And that’s the problem in a nutshell.

The expression ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’ will become ‘now that we did, why did we again?’ as user and need-driven design has completely disappeared in the developed world.

Our biggest problems  have nothing to do with connectivity and technology but we’re enjoying the engineering-led distraction.

Environmental responsibility, ridiculous packaging, data ownership are all areas that people have been thinking and writing about for over 70 years and we have done, as designers, almost nothing about them. At least not enough to fill the halls of CES.

So design, as it was once conceived, is no longer the glue between technical capabilities and user needs. It is simply the physicalisation tool of technologists with no real understanding or appetite for real needs as there are better, advertising led ways of making money. Hardware doesn’t make you money anymore.

How did we get here? Well the design industry just went to sleep. It’s star system (Stark, Rashid, Béhar, Mooi, etc) is decades old and young talent distracted by it.

For a product designer to want to learn about technology, he/she would not be going to a traditional design course but then he’d lose out on some of the technical essentials of design. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

There is not yet a space for graduate design education that caters to this new world, that fights back. A world that teaches people that to build great products, a design education isn’t enough, you need financing, marketing, engineering and manufacturing partners. You, actually, need to be a design entrepreneur in order to control the user-need driven vision you are taught in design education.  And that’s hard to tell someone who, at 18 or 19,  just knows that they like to draw.

I’d like to try to build such a design program longer term. If you’d like to talk about that drop me a line at alex at designswarm dot com. Let’s keep calm, but let’s not carry on. There is much work to do.

 

Happy New Year!

So you want an internet of things strategy?

I’ve been giving talks and having lots of meetings with executives across a number of different industries who are interested in the internet of things and aren’t quite sure what to do. Based on the past ten years of my work around this topic, here are some high-level recommendations.

Assumptions: chances are you have a research department or the product arm of your business is changing because your industry is changing. Latching on to the internet of things, AR/VR, cloud and digital is likely to help you solve some problems but not all. Chances are you need a change of culture and a change of senior management. This article is specifically for your business if you’ve decided to commit to #iot as a topic area and are ready to commit to it for a minimum of 3 years.

  1. Think about legacy

Staff turn-around in technical teams can be high (especially if they’re young) and chances are you’ll be recruiting web developers, creative technologists, industrial designers and electronics engineer as part of a good team that can prototype new connected product ideas for your business. These teams, when they work well are self-sufficient and therefore a culture of quick iterative prototypes is developed. This culture clashes with the need for comprehensive documentation of each idea. Successful high resolution prototypes are one thing but the interesting little prototypes that lead you there are just as important. Making sure code, circuitboard diagrams, BoMs and demo videos are available is important to make sure someone in Marketing or the next technical lead can understand a development process.

  1. Know your history and your landscape

You are joining a rich ecology of startups, government programs, tools and standards groups. You’re not doing this on your own so you better get used to collaborating with others that may have competing interests but are much smaller than you and have developed better tools. It takes a particular type of humility but what you’ll get out of it will stand out from what’s being done by your industry. The point of the internet of things is the breakdown of industry silos. The trick here is to grow a circle of ‘care’ so work with people in a way that opens up your abilities and your contacts so they can do the same. That’s why it’s the internet of things and not the intranet of things. People expect APIs for your services and the open mind to go with it.

  1. Help users get literate

In light of the recent splat of press about the internet of things and security we have to work as an industry to give people the tools to know what they should do. We struggle to do this online already and when things are added to the mix of course it complexifies things a lot, but the opportunity here is for a decent amount of time spent with end-users, not just ‘personas’ who are so loved by some design thinkers. There’s nothing like giving people something to live with for a while (be it either at home or at work) to get great feedback and highlight opportunities. It’s not with post-its, it’s not with ideas, it’s with functional high resolution prototypes that you’ll have to invest in fabrication. This means spending months (a long-term trial of the average social robot is 3 months) with customers finding out how your product fits. Only then will you have something that can change people’s lives (at work or at home!) and only then can you help them understand the risks best.

  1. Be patient

Don’t assume you’ll be able to create value for your organisation quickly, getting teams to work together and have good ideas they can prototype and iterate (takes ages to order parts) and then getting something that’s unique enough to showcase once a year at CES means that to get noticed and the right partners on board long term you’ll have to do this for some years. You’ll learn a lot and try to trust your team to work slowly but steadily. It’s difficult when you’re probably tied to whatever you can do within a financial quarter but if you want to change your business, that’s the price to pay. Try not to change innovation managers too often that’s really disruptive to the process and technical teams and jeopardises progress. Also give them a good budget, they have to buy machinery and parts! :)

Good luck!

 

Five minutes on smart cities

Introduction given at ESOF16 on July 25th in Manchester.

I’ve been working with Nominet R&D for the past year looking at the progress of over 140 global smart city projects and I wanted to take advantage of my five minutes here to talk talk about what I see are the future challenges of smart cities in a rapidly degrading economic and political global landscape.

Most smart city projects have usually taken a technology-first approach and relied heavily on government and EU funding. After a panel debate I organised last week on Brexit at the meetup, it’s safe to assume we will lose large parts of that funding as EU money disappears and the UK government aims to patch that up with existing funds.

With this, we, strangely, may return to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ message: we will have to get a lot of things done ourselves and own up, as citizens to not only our rights, but our responsibilities in building a future society which is becoming technologically more literate (thanks to Facebook, Pokemon Go and other accessible, comprehensive platforms) but cash-poor. We, I think, owe it to help groups of people find their voice in a world of global market economics.

I’ve been working on a project called Made Near You to help food producers across the UK build a minimal viable digital presence, make themselves findable by tourists and newcomers who move to the country from big cities when they have kids.

It’s not that it’s addressing a complex city problem, but it may help small businesses around the country to participate in these data-laden economies they perhaps haven’t connected to previously.

I’m also interested in championing bottom-up projects such as the Air Quality Egg, the Smart Citizen kit, Buffalo Grid and the Oxford Flood Network. Projects which have very small teams who are under-funded because they address complex problems associated with climate change. But we will not be able to rely on our national and local governments to do ‘the right thing’.

The answer for some, may lie in distancing themselves from the problems of local economies, that is the privilege of the few however.

For the rest of us will have to support these products ourselves. That will become the new normal, the new meaning of smart citizenship, whatever country we may be citizen of on paper.